A Dry Idea to Save Energy and Preserve Food

Could Desiccation Be the Future of Drying in Agriculture?

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Silican gel packets on wood surface
Silica packets serve as desiccants, which preserve foods by keeping away surrounding moisture. A UC Davis Grad Slam champ thinks the process could be scaled up to save energy and prevent food waste in agriculture. (Getty)

Have you ever stopped to think about how much energy it takes to dry the coffee beans in your coffee? Or the corn in the tortilla chip you’re crunching? Or the rice in your sushi roll? Probably not — you might lose your appetite.

UC Davis Grad Slam winner Alice Dien has thought about it a lot and come up with an intriguing solution: Desiccation. Desi-what? That’s the process of preserving food by removing its moisture—something done all the time by those little silica packets in your food wrappers that say “Do not eat.”

She wants to scale up that process.

“Desiccant drying could be a game-changing solution for three of the biggest challenges humanity is facing: food safety, food insecurity and climate change,” Dien told the UC Davis Grad Slam audience this week. 

Grad Slam is an always impressive annual contest that encourages master’s and Ph.D. students across the University of California to hone their science communication skills for a general audience, challenging them to condense their thesis in just three minutes.

UC Davis Grad Slam 2022 champ Alice Dien holds oversized check with Graduate Studies Dean Jean-Pierre Delplanque
UC Davis Grad Slam 2022 champion Alice Dien with Graduate Studies Dean Jean-Pierre Delplanque after the winners were announced. (UC Davis)

Dien, a Biological Systems Engineering Ph.D. student, said that nearly a quarter of the U.S. food industry’s energy consumption comes from drying. Major staples like corn, rice and beans typically require drying. Meanwhile, the cost of natural gas — and not just its planetary costs — are going up, which could impact food prices.

Creating a drying system that uses desiccants instead of heat could potentially make drying cheaper and less carbon-intensive—especially when the new system runs on renewable energy sources. Sustainable drying methods can also help reduce food waste lost to spoilage.

Dien artfully explains all of this in her competition-winning talk, “Cooling down with the new hot air: The future of drying in agriculture.”

You can watch the recording of all the Grad Slam competitors’ talks at https://grad.ucdavis.edu/grad-slam. Dien’s segment comes on at the 37:30 mark.

Having won the UC Davis Grad Slam, Dien will go on to compete in the UC Grad Slam final on May 6.

“You shouldn’t have to be a scientist to understand science, and the Grad Slam is the perfect space to showcase that," Dien said after the competition. "My 3-minute speech led to lots of follow-up questions. This really showed me the impact of making science understandable for a general audience”.  

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Kat Kerlin is an environmental science writer and media relations specialist at UC Davis. She’s the editor of the “What Can I Do About Climate Change?” blog. kekerlin@ucdavis.edu. @UCDavis_Kerlin

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